Nigeria’s fertile deserts, cultivated under siege

Only the dead have seen the end of war, a quote with some controversy on attribution to either Plato or George Santayana, but laden with deep meaning, and a sad reflection of what Nigeria’s northeast and its economic prospects have become.

On a trip to Borno and Yobe states for firsthand accounts of the situation in severely affected areas, it was evident that not only the dead have seen the end of war, but the living have also witnessed an unthinkable transformation of their fortunes. Many are happy not to be dead, but the economy and their sources of livelihoods have been far from lucky. It has become a classic ‘grace to grass’ story for many people who were wealthy, influential, and contributed to economic growth, but now, holding out bowls in the marketplace to beg for food.

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“Imagine coming from a village where you were so rich, with plenty cattle, food, everything, and within one hour you’re forced to run out with one cloth. You come here but no one cares about you, because many are like you. You see someone who was the richest person in their area, begging in the market here in Maiduguri. This is how bad it is,” said Abdulkadir Jidda, chairman, All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN), Borno State chapter when we met in Maiduguri.

In Yobe state, at the International Cattle Market in Potiskum, dubbed the largest in West Africa, similar tales of misfortune were told.

Abubakar Agwai, Yobe state secretary of the Amalgamated Cattle Dealers Association of Nigeria revealed that; some people who in the past bought up to 15 cows and transported to places like Warri, Lagos, Enugu and other places (in the south), are now unable to buy anything and many are now labourers in the market, working for those coming to buy.

Indeed, with an estimated 19 million heads of cattle in Nigeria, yet barely meeting local demand for meat and milk, the Southern part of the country has traditionally relied on the North for dairy supplies. Assuming N100,000 per cow, the cattle market could be estimated at N1.9 trillion.

Jidda, giving some perspective to economic prosperity before insurgency, explained with nostalgia and a sense of grief in his voice, that “before 2009, one could say Borno was a hub of farming in the country. We held the first position in about ten commodities; especially livestock, fish, beans, groundnut, and people would come for these commodities from everywhere, up from Sudan (and neighbouring countries), and down to Lagos, in the southern part of Nigeria.”

For the first (and only time) during what was a half hour interview, Jidda was able to smile when he said with pride “as someone from Lagos, you will know that (the popular) Borno fish is the best in the whole country. We also have beans; both red and white varieties, millet, sorghum, gum Arabic, groundnut, and wheat production (in which we were the first because of the Chad basin).”

Jidda further explained that, “People who were prospering in Borno were especially farmers, as they were in control of almost all the wealth. Also, whether a person had a white collar job or some other paid employment; they usually would still farm. But now, you can’t see anybody, only dead bodies on the farms.”

Also abandoned is 67,000 hectares of land previously used for wheat farming in the Chad basin, with watermelon also cultivated on land covering several kilometres along the shores of Lake Chad. The 67,000 hectares spreads across Ngara, Marte (the largest), to Baga, small pockets in Gamboru Ngala, and some other locations.

“But, nobody can go there now,” Jidda said. Yet, Nigeria remains food insecure with a food import bill of over $5 billion, and for wheat, spends an estimated $1 billion on importation annually. Land previously used for wheat cultivation is for seven years, wasting away due to the insurgency, and may not regain optimal productivity anytime soon.

Not only crop production has suffered a hit, but even livestock production and trading. From Chad, Niger, Cameroun, and as far as Central African Republic, cattle was for decades brought into Nigeria through routes which have now been closed for years.

Displaced farmers sit under a shed in the Farm centre IDP Camp, Jere LGA, Borno.

Abba Gambo, a professor at the University of Maiduguri who also advises some Nigerian Governors on Agriculture, explained that “the Sahelian zone consisting of Chad, Niger and Nigeria has the major livestock there. So you find Gamboru Ngala in Borno state, sitting as a border town between Nigeria and the Republic of Chad.

“Chad has plenty of livestock which they want to take out, but it is a landlocked country, so it must come through Gamboru Ngala. And then, Chad has a small land mass for agricultural purposes. The larger part of Chad is under the desert, just like the larger part of the Republic of Niger. They need food, virtually everything from Irish potatoes to beans, and even to processed items like magi cubes which are always gotten from Nigeria.

“At a time, 50 trucks will leave Maiduguri daily, carrying so many things from condiments to bathroom slippers, to plastic containers, mats, and at times even cars are put into the big trucks. All this is now history,” Gambo said.

Lawal Ngalbia, acting secretary of Borno State’s AFAN, reiterating the once prosperous cattle route from neighbouring countries, recalled with nostalgia how the Borno cattle market once flourished. But since the Gamboru-Ngala road got closed by the military, there has been no business.

As we drove past the junction leading to the Gamboru-Ngala road from Maiduguri, Ngalbia points forward, saying the cattle market used to be somewhere along this road, but of course, we dare not venture into it.

Farming, trading under the shadow of death

Even though the city centres appear relatively calm, but like the sixth sense of a K-9 unit, the ever looming danger of possible terrorist attacks can be felt. Everyone is alert, on the edge, and as one travels farther away to more rural settlements where farmers live in villages, fear is heightened, and uncertainty is absolute.

“Recently, they killed about 15 of our farmers. They came and reported to me and I asked; what can I do about it? It happened in Jere area where they went to clear their farms and gather some firewood. All of them were slaughtered on their farms, and there is nothing anybody can do about it,” said Jidda, Borno’s AFAN chairman, overwhelmed and saddened.

The College of Agriculture lies in ruins long the road to Buni Yadi, deserted after it was attacked by Boko Haram.

Recalling when he had to run away from his own home, and flourishing farmland in Marte Local Government Area (LGA), which is still inaccessible, he said “it was a terrible thing for me, especially because I have a large family and being a leader of the farmers, now sitting idle for six years.

“You can’t imagine the pain I am in, you just can’t imagine it,” Jidda said.

The College of Agriculture lies in ruins long the road to Buni Yadi, deserted after it was attacked by Boko Haram.

Abba Gambo, who is also a member of the El Kanemi Royal Family, in an emotional interview, said 32 members of his (royal) family have been lost to insurgency, including Abba Ibrahim, a traditional ruler as district head of Gudumbali who was killed in his presence.

He has been unable to visit his farm in the last five years out of fear, even though it is located about five kilometres from the University of Maiduguri, within the village called Dalori.

Gambo said he also has “an orchard behind the Chad Basin Development Authority, with about 100 mango trees in it and they were fruiting very well. During the dry season when the river comes, I planted rice on the farm and used to get about 100 bags of paddy rice. But for the last five years, I could not step into that farm. I don’t know the people harvesting the mangoes, or whether they are planting something else there. And honestly, I do not have the guts to go there. I just do not have it.”

“This fear is not felt only by me, but virtually all the farmers in Borno state. You cannot access your farm, orchard, garden, and even your livestock is not spared. So the whole concept of agriculture in Borno has died for a very long time,” Gambo added.

Same could be said of the international cattle market in Potiskum where as Agwai explained “Cows coming to the market have been drastically reduced, likewise the number of customers coming to trade.”

“Gunmen invaded this market and shot over 150 people to death. Till date there has been no show of support or concern from any agency of government,” Agwai said, speaking of horrors from the past, which still haunts many people and combined with losses suffered, limits the capacity to regain economic boom.

Badamasi Umar, a farmer in Buni Gari, few kilometres from Buni Yadi where the Emir’s palace lies in ruins, lamented “there is fear and threat on farms to the east (of the local government area). Ironically, they are the most productive lands and are bigger than the ones we cultivate now.

“The lands we cultivate presently are a little safe, and there is some confidence to farm, only that every farmer’s dream is to cultivate the banned farmlands. We are just managing these ones,” Badamasi said.

Homes are gone, and the ‘Brave Ones’ battle low productivity

With 17 out of 27 Local Government Areas in Borno state captured by Boko Haram at some point, and at least four in Yobe, the ‘Brave Ones’; returnees to some of the liberated communities, however, struggle to rebuild their destroyed homes, and lack of inputs to resume work on the farm.

At the Farm centre IDP Camp in Jere, closer to Maiduguri metropolis and not under much threat like other areas in the same local government, farmers sit under tents, as they wait, and hope for donors to come deliver food, and other aid items.

“All the houses in our place have been destroyed. Even if there is no fear, we can’t go back because there are no houses to live in,” Jubril Abdulmumini now in his fourth year at the IDP camp, said in despair.

The Emir’s palace, Gujba Emirates Council, deserted after it was attacked by Boko Haram insurgents.

Abubakar Ibrahim, who lived in Giremari village, Mafa Local Government, has for three years lived in the same Farm centre IDP camp with his wife and 11 children, but says there is no home for him to return to, much less regaining his six hectare farm where he cultivated millet, sorghum, groundnut, and beans.

Visiting Buni Yadi in Gubja Local Government Area of Yobe state, the community could be mistaken for a ghost town, as abandoned, destroyed buildings line the expressway. What used to be a courthouse is now covered in shrubs; the college of agriculture is deserted, same for schools, and a police station. Even the Emir’s palace for the Gujba Emirates Council was not spared. The palace has been abandoned by the Emir for years, burnt by insurgents, and now a shadow of the once festive ambience most palaces have.

Buni Yadi was once a successful town, driven by agriculture and a large grains market where traders and buyers from within and outside Nigeria transacted. Farmers here produced mostly grains such as guinea corn, maize, millet, sesame and wheat. But today, the few ‘Brave Ones’ that have returned, are struggling to regain productivity on their farmlands.

Muhammad Lawan, a farmer in Buni Yadi, speaking in Hausa language, said “agricultural activities have deteriorated very much, because a farmer who previously had the capacity to produce 50-100 bags can now only get 10-20 bags at most.”

Similarly, Ali Modu, another farmer in Buni Yadi, said “since we came back, it was last year I started to farm due to fear. Before the crisis, I could get up to 100 bags of produce, but last year, I only got 10 bags in all.”

Sabo Usman, a transport officer at Gujba LGA, who also says he is a vendor with the World Food Programme (WFP), said “there were (big) farmers who previously got up to 1000 bags of produce here, but presently cannot even produce 50 bags because of financial problems, lack of machinery, fertiliser, and improved seeds. Some farmers don’t even have money to pay labourers that will work on the farm for them.”

Ibrahim Garba, the Sarkin Yaki, Gujba Emirates Council, sitting on a mat, in front of the destroyed, deserted Emir’s palace in Buni Yadi, reiterated the lack of capacity by many returnees wishing to resume farming. But beyond this, he noted that “fear prevails in the neighbouring villages.”

Another palace chief, Lawan Ibrahim, the Zannah Sulhuma Gujba, also said in despair that “there is high threat and fear in our place. Only very few have returned, and they cannot even farm because it is not safe at all. Many have not returned and some do not even intend to return.

“Even I sitting here, I am staying due to my position in the Emirate council, but things are not safe around us,” Ibrahim lamented.

No light at the end of the tunnel

“It will take at least two and half years for proper farming to start in Borno,” a Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) commander in Maiduguri opined, on the condition of anonymity, and based on his experience working with security agencies to curtail the insurgency,

Showing pictures on his phone where according to him they had to clear out terrorists from an area, he said, “How can a land owner in that kind of place come to the farm?”

A less optimistic Usman, the Gujba LGA Transport officer in neighbouring Yobe, which is supposedly less hit by insurgents compared to Borno, said “farming activities may become normal in five or more years, but not less than five years.”

An expansive poultry farm is abandoned, likewise farmlands close to it.

And perhaps even less optimistic, Garba, the Sarkin Yaki, Gujba Emirates Council, said “it will take six to seven years before farming activities will continue like before, and this is according to our expectation if farming starts this planting season.”

“Some farms are being cleared, and we are waiting for rainy season to set in. I even planted maize today as I am talking to you, because we had a good rain last night,” Garba added.

But confidence to farm remains relative as Modu, a farmer in Buni Yadi said even though “there is peace of mind here, our surrounding villages have fear in farming especially eastwards. There are places where farming cannot even be practiced.”

Lawan, also a farmer in Buni Yadi, said “we previously had about 50 villages ahead of us but which no longer exist. The indigenes were all farmers, but are no longer there because of insecurity.”

A fertiliser blending plant abandoned along Gujba-Damaturu Road.

Normalcy and peace appear to be more a figment of hope than reality, as many are willing to cling on to it and resume farming.

Jidda, the AFAN chairman in Borno, on his part, said when farming activities can resume to normal is “not an easy question to answer.”

“The insurgency is unpredictable. Nobody knows when they will stop, but if they stop even today, by next week you will not find even one farmer here in Maiduguri anymore. All of them are very eager to go back, just like Bama people.

“Recently they opened Bama road, and up to 4,000 people have moved back. They are cautious but very eager to go back, and more are going by the day. But you can’t say when all the farmers will go back,” said Jidda.

In what could be mistaken for excitement; “Caleb see carrot; look at it in bags. That is what we used to see in Bama. Bags and bags of carrots in Bama but today, even carrots are being imported into Maiduguri,” exclaimed Gambo during our interview in Maiduguri, as the station showing on the TV set aired montage of a marketplace in what appeared to be a western country.

He continued, “From Bama a truck will be filled up with carrots, and move to Lagos, because it is so tender, succulent, and also very sweet. Unfortunately all those farms are no longer there, the carrots are not there, and now we are trying to take people back to their environments without giving them starter packs. We have not gotten it right.”

The northeast with an estimated population of 25 million people, and landmass which is almost one-third of the country was a productive region where trade (formal and informal) especially established the economic relevance of Nigeria to the survival of many of her neighbours. But today, many historical trade routes have been shut.

Nigeria’s northeast is now identified as being at high risk of famine in ‘State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World’, a 2017 report jointly authored by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Food Programme (WFP), and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Internally Displaced Persons at the Farm Centre camp receive their monthly food ration.

Buttressing this, another report, the 2017 global report on food crises by the Food Security Information Network, stated that an estimated 8.1 million people are food insecure in Northern Nigeria, with 4.7 million coming from the Northeast alone.

“Hungry people are very many in Maiduguri now. All the people are hungry,” a rather distraught Mohammadu Rijiya, former president, Borno Chamber of Commerce and Industry had told BusinessDay before the northeast trip.

“For seven years there hasn’t been farming in the whole of Borno state, and we have been depending on the largesse of people like Dangote, and others, but for how long will Dangote feed Borno people with rice?,” said Gambo, visibly saddened by the fate of his people.

Those who dare to farm could get lucky and make it back home, while others end up soaking their farmlands in their own blood. For now, no one knows when the region will return to economic prosperity even though the Boko Haram insurgents have according to the Federal Government been “technically defeated” by the Nigerian military. But then, that is a story for another day.

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